Monday, October 24, 2016

Songwriting, Cochlear implant testing and International classes, oh my!

Last week was very busy and interesting.  I love the diversity of my work. On Tuesday, I spent the day at JMU as a cochlear implant research participant. The day involved working on one test which I had to listen carefully to a series of two conflicting beeping lines of sounds --one in low frequency and the other in high frequency. The task was to determine whether there was a delay at the end of the line or not. This one task I did for 4.5 hours! I was to focus on the low sound while the high frequency sounds were there to try to distract me. At times I felt really able to hear the delay in the line and others I could not tell at all. Doing such focused tests can be hard but it is also fun for me.

On Thursday, I gave my second presentation to UVA's international students in my series, "The American Experience Through Music." This class I taught them some Civil Rights songs and how some of the old African Spirituals were brought back into popularity during that time. Songs like, "Oh Freedom," "Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child." We especially enjoyed singing together, "Calypso Freedom," which is an improvisational call and response chant based on the Jamaican song, "Banana Boat Song" by Harry Belafonte (who was a big civil rights activist)  The picture above is of me at Minor Hall at UVA with my ESL students.

Friday I co-led a songwriting workshop for my VSA (very special arts) group. We gave the class a list of subjects to vote on to write about: Animals, Friends, Birthdays, Holidays. They voted we write about all of these :) So, we brainstormed to vote upon two animals who become friends and they were a horse and a turkey. We then gave the students options for the kind of song to write: Blues, Bluegrass, Country, etc. They decided they wanted to have the song be both a Blues and a Bluegrass song. Hm.  I was not sure how we were going to pull of of this together but we did it! And the resulting song was very funny! It began as a Blues song where both the Horse and Turkey had the blues because they were all alone. Somehow, they meet and become friends and that's when the song turns into Bluegrass. The students were divided up as either a Horse or a Turkey and they made sounds of the animals when it came to expressing their voices.

It was all a lot of fun and now I am ready for a new week. I wonder what will happen next ??

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The American Experience Through Music

Back in the late 90s I worked as a temp at the University of Virginia International Center .   Something I enjoyed most while working there was watching them learn about American culture in their English language groups. My favorite was their book group where they would read American novels and discuss them. I was challenged by the teacher then to summarize, "To Kill a Mockingbird," in one sentence. It cannot be done!

The book group gave me the idea that a similar study group could be formed to learn about American music.  So, my new series was born. In our first lesson we discussed, "This Land is Your Land," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Wayfaring Stranger." They are great examples of a folk song, African-American spiritual and a Gospel song respectively.

I passed out the lyrics and sang for them and each song brought up questions and comments. What does it mean "No Trespassing?" in "This Land is Your Land"?  One student answered, "not allowed?"  Yes and that was the main point of the song because the lyrics say next:

"On the other side, it didn't say nothing
That side was made for you and me."

In other words, this land is made for everyone. No matter your social class, ethnic background, skin color, etc. "This land was made for you and me."

Next I asked, "How does the song, "Wayfaring Stranger," make you feel"? One student answered, "It makes me feel like how I feel right now, far away from home." Yes. It's a song written back in the 1700s about the plight of the pilgrims and the hope of going to a better place in the afterlife.

Then I showed them some videos of Bluegrass music  Bill Monroe and Alison Kraus.  But the real treat was of this performance of the popular Old Time band  Carolina Chocolate Drops:

Our next class we'll focus on Blues and Jazz. Looking forward to that!!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Joyful times

Do you remember times when you were so excited about something you could not sleep? Times when after something so joyous happened to you that you daydreamed about it for daze (pun intended :) afterward?

Working with this group of special needs young adults this week brought back that feeling for me. I collaborated with a local music therapist and together we taught a workshop on songwriting. Of the topics voted on (choices were: fall, friendship, love, music) - the group decided to write about music.  Everyone contributed some of the lyrics and together we came up with a song that made everyone so happy to sing.

The first verse listed favorite bands and singers - Katy Perry and Led Zeppelin made the list. The chorus was my favorite part.  We sang, "Bands, singers and fans."  I remembered being a child when the Beatles' movie, "Help" came out and being in the audience while young women screamed through the whole thing. (I did not understand this at all).  Remembering how crazy excited some people can get about their favorite music, I suggested that we screamed after singing the word, "fans." That really made our song fun! Every time we came to that part- everyone jumped up screaming like a crazy fan.

This made me remember times in my teens when I saw a concert that was so good, I did not sleep afterwards and I would daydream in school for days after. When I first started playing the guitar, I loved Neil Young and I can remember a concert I went to where I ran down to the front of the stage and just stared up at him. It was hard to believe he was a real human being and not something larger than life.

It's been a long time since I have felt that kind of super charged excitement about things. Sure, I feel enthusiastic and happy but it is a more calm version from what I felt as a teenager. It was a good reminder of being in touch with the simple things in life and being happy.

Have you been to a concert recently that had you all jazzed up? Keep up that joy! :)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Tales from a Blue Heart

This fall I am entering my 12th year working at the hospital as a therapeutic musician. It continues to be such a rewarding job that I love so much.  I meet people in what may be one of their worst moments in life. Though I walk in their room a stranger, music brings them comfort and connects us in a way that nothing else would. Since the guitar is such a popular instrument,  many feel an immediate connection to it and either play the guitar themselves or know someone close to them that did.

Yesterday, when I presented myself to the nursing station at the NNICU (Neurological ICU), I was given a patient to play for who was being visited by his family. The nurse said, "it's a lively group in there!"

Sure enough, it was a  lively group of 7 family members all from MI come to be with their loved one in the hospital. When the patient saw my guitar, he asked for Jimi Hendrix.  (I often get these kinds of requests, which are meant to be jokes :)   Yet he did not know that Jimi Hendrix was one of my biggest inspirations for taking up the guitar back in 1975. That was a time when bands like, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd,  were popular.  At the recreation center where I hung out in high school, we used to make up line dances to Jimi Hendrix songs. Back then I was so absorbed with the music, I did not dance with them but sat right next to the speaker and drummed along with the songs. (I was a drummer in high school band)

Anyway, his Hendrix reference gave me ideas for music he would like. Usually in ICU, I don't play much upbeat music or pop songs because I am usually working to relax the patient and bring down their heart rate. But this man was sitting up in a chair (often this means for medical reasons they need to be "up" physically for circulation and other reasons).

So I launched into the Beatles, "Here Comes the Sun" as my first song. Instantly I saw the song was known and loved by everyone in the room. Two of the women got teary eyed and had an expression of surprise.  I often feel an intuition of what to play and I was glad I hit a common chord with them.

The man was eating his lunch and nodding along to the music as the others were video taping and photographing me. I used to be uncomfortable with this kind of reaction but I realize it is not a usual occurrence for people to experience live music in a hospital room.

Since the patient was a guitar lover, my next selection was "Classical Gas" -- a very famous guitar instrumental. I find that song is a real connector because it is so well known and everyone seems to have memories attached to it.

After a few more songs,  we all sat and talked awhile and I learned they were from Michigan which is also where my family is from.  When I was getting ready to leave, one of the women collected money to give me as a tip. I told them I appreciated their generosity but I could not accept it.   I don't often get people doing that, so I was a little overwhelmed by the gesture. Also, I didn't want to hurt their feelings for wanting to give back to me. In the end, they understood why I didn't take the money. Also they gave me much more than any money could give.

Pictured in this post is a coloring piece I did recently that I call Tales from a Blue Heart. It is about healing from the grief of the loss of my mother as well as one of my best friends. Though the heart is blue, it is surrounded by love and memories.
Thanks so much for reading and Happy September!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Invocation of the Mystery Guest

Hi everyone! Today I wanted to tell you the story of how one of my solo guitar pieces came to be. First of all, about the title. When I first moved here to Charlottesville, VA (from Chicago) I was invited to a women's gathering. She asked me, "Do you want to be the mystery guest?"  This question really intrigued me because it gave a name for how I felt much of my life. Kind of of an outsider but not in a negative way. I mean there is a difference between being an outcast and a "mystery guest."
Little did I know that in accepting this invitation nearly 30 years ago, I would still have these friends in my life.

So now onto the song posted here. It was a cold winter morning and I picked up my guitar and this piece emerged. I never forgot the invitation of being the mystery guest though it was many years ago. I knew right away that the music that came would be perfect for the mystery guest theme. So.. that's the story.

I love how songs come about and how they make a sonic memory album and soundtrack of our lives.

I hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Life Changing Event #BeatsofCochlea2016

I have just returned from one of the biggest journeys and life changing experiences of my life. I was fortunate to have been selected to participate in the Beats of Cochlea Festival in Warsaw, Poland. This is a festival for musicians with cochlear implants. It was absolutely wonderful to meet musicians with such a high musical skill level who also had cochlear implants.  As many know, music can be very challenging for those with cochlear implants. However, technology has come so far in recent years in for musicians and this festival was a demonstration of that.

I loved being part of a global community where I was only 1 of 3 from the U.S. while others came from Turkey, China, Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Equator,  Hungary, Ukraine, Poland and Canada. All of the events were translated into four languages. I loved hearing the sounds of the mother tongues from all over the world.  

The festival sponsored 32 musicians where we auditioned to perform in the Gala concert on the final night. One ten musicians were selected and though I was not a finalist, in a way that was nicer for me in order to enjoy the concert with no stress.

Some of my favorite moments were:

During lunch after our auditions, the jury was meeting to choose the Gala participants. As we awaited the verdict we all got programs with our Bio info and pictures and went around to each other to get our autographs. It was a very touching moment for me that we were all stars in each others eyes and we were all supporting and encouraging each other.

That night, the staff members of Cochlear and I got the idea to create a "Flash Mob" experience and start singing a song after dinner. I got the idea to adapt the African freedom song, "Freedom Calypso" and change the words to be about music and being at the festival. It is a call and response song where I would sing one line and the group would answer me. This was a lot of fun to do! We didn't tell the other tables we would do this and the whole restaurant stopped and watched and joined in.

The Gala concert itself was a black tie occasion. It was streamed live over the internet and it was very exciting to think that anyone from around the world could watch. There is a link to the recording of the broadcast at this link.  It was such an exhilarating experience and one that I will always remember.

The next day, I presented at the World Hearing Center in a conference about music and implants. I talked about things I did with a music teacher to help regain music and pitch perception. I enjoyed doing that a lot and that was one of the highlights of my year so far!

Thanks much as always for stopping by. Feel free to get in touch!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Let the Music Come

I was going through some of my old songs from when I first moved here to Charlottesville back in 1989. Pictured above is a photo shoot from 23 years ago! I love remembering some of the stories that turned into songs. Here how the song, "Let the Music Come" came about.

Way back in '89 I participated in a week long guitar class in NYC with Robert Fripp called, "Guitar Craft".  The class involved using  what is called the New Standard Tuning for guitar.  This was a totally new way to tune the guitar to all 35 or so of us beginning Guitar Craft students.

On Wednesday of that week, Robert came to class and announced, "You are to play in a concert on Friday night. The New York Times will be there. It's up to you what you will play. " Then he walked out.

Chaos ensued after he left! What are we supposed to play? We did not know this new way to tune the guitar and we did not know any songs. For nearly an hour we argued and debated what to do. Finally, I got an idea and suggested we imitate a rain storm. Everyone liked this idea. We practiced first everyone playing light harmonics on their guitar and then it crescendoing into thunder and lightening with percussive playing on our guitars. We were ready for the concert. Or so we thought...

When the hour was up, Robert asked what we planned to play for the concert. One of the students said, "How are we to know what to play if we do not know this new tuning or have any songs?" Robert let the question hang in the air for a few moments and he said, "Sit in the silence and wait for the music to come. " We were dismissed.

I went to my room and sat in the silence and this song, "Let the Music Come" came to me--just as he said.  This is what we played for the concert on Friday night.

I still remember when we performed my song that night at the concert, I forgot some of the words. (I only wrote it two days before) It created a long pause where it turned out to be just perfect...for it was when I said, "I gotta wait.." The song is about waiting for the muse to come.

We did also play the rain storm  but that was a disaster! I still remember Robert turning his head away in what looked to be disgust. We were just learning then and failing and experimenting is all part of it.

I hope you enjoy the song :)